New College of Humanities and Social Sciences dean is ready to work and listen

Ann Ardis, a proponent of multidisciplinary and project-based learning, said one of her priorities is helping students translate their educational passions into job skills. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

As she embarks on what she calls her “archetypal listening tour,” Ann Ardis, the new dean of George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) knows she must make choices.

With more than 400 faculty members in the college, meeting one-on-one to understand their concerns and learn about the identity of the college is not doable in the short term. But one-on-one meetings with department chairs and directors of programs and research centers are already underway, and she is thinking about how best to stage meetings and open office hours for other constituents.

“There’s so much still to learn and so much work to be done. What’s a sustainable pace?” Ardis said.

She already knows Mason is the right fit.

“I love the fact that this is not an ivory tower,” Ardis said. “This is very much a campus in a city, and its students juggle work, family, and educational commitments 24/7.”

Ardis came to Mason from the University of Delaware, where she was senior vice provost for graduate and professional education. Prior to that she was deputy dean of Delaware’s College of Arts and Sciences, and she was the founding director of Delaware’s interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center, which supports collaborative multidisciplinary research, teaching and creative activity anchored in the humanities.

Read the announcement regarding her hiring.

She is a proponent of multidisciplinary, project-based learning, which can integrate graduate and undergraduate education and allows students at very different stages in their educational and life journeys to work closely with faculty on faculty-led research and community engagement projects. And in a world so focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Ardis believes it is a dean’s role to broadcast the career skills that humanities and social sciences graduates bring to the table.

She spoke recently from her office in Buchanan Hall on the Fairfax Campus.

So, how do you bring more focus on the skill sets of humanities and social sciences graduates?

Some of the work the dean’s office needs to do, that the college needs to do, is understand better the career pathways and trajectories of our majors. What are CHSS undergraduate and graduate alumni doing 5, 10, 15 years after graduation? How can we more effectively communicate these alumni stories to prospective students and their parents? Are there opportunities to engage our alumni in sponsoring internships and mentoring current students?  

What does that process look like?

The culture of college education invites students to identify with their majors. But the diverse array of career opportunities that students in the humanities and social sciences pursue doesn’t map as neatly or obviously onto a student’s undergraduate major as it can for an engineering or a nursing student, for example. We can help current students translate their educational passions into job skills and network with CHSS alumni. Our goal as educators is the development of engaged citizens, so we always need to be thinking beyond discipline-based career placement and workforce development issues as we create truly transformational learning opportunities for students.

How does that play into the idea of project-based and multidisciplinary learning?

I am 100 percent convinced that project-based learning can be a game-changer in students’ lives, and for faculty as well. When undergraduates work side-by-side with graduate students and faculty on faculty-led research projects, you’re creating dynamic opportunities for near-peer mentoring and modeling. When multidisciplinary teams of students and faculty partner with community organizations and nonprofits on community-based projects, you’re opening up important new interfaces between a university and its surrounding communities.

How will your listening tour play into your vision for the college?

A dean works for his or her faculty, ensuring they have the resources they need to do great work and helping them find a collective identity that enables the college as a whole to contribute substantially to the university’s mission and strategic priorities. When I meet with department chairs and program and research center directors, I’m soliciting their thinking about opportunities for partnerships in and beyond the college. I’m encouraging them to share their thoughts about current strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as about current CHSS policies or practices that perhaps unintentionally get in the way of their faculty’s aspirational ambitions.

What have you learned so far?

CHSS faculty and staff take great pride in their shared commitment to serving a diverse array of learners. They take pride in the faculty’s research accomplishments. There is less of a sense of the college’s identity than I had expected, though. I didn’t realize until recently just how young CHSS is as a college unit, so there’s even more of an opportunity to build affinity and brand identity than I realized.

Do you have a message for the Mason community?

It’s an exciting place to be. People love working here. There’s a real sense of commitment to this place that you feel constantly. My husband’s faculty appointment is in the business school and he will be working with Schar to enhance pre-law mentoring and advising. Both of us are very excited about this new chapter in our lives, and grateful for the very warm welcome we’ve been given.